JERREY ROBERTS Cady Lalanne, top right, of the University of Massachusetts, shoots amid St. Joseph's defenders Halil Kanacevic, from left, Ronald Roberts and Chris Wilson Wednesday at the Mullins Center.
AMHERST — With just over a minute left, after the University of Massachusetts had used a 13-5 run to cut Saint Joseph’s nine-point lead to one, Maxie Esho was essentially a one-man full-court press on Hawk guard DeAndre Bembry.
The St. Joe’s freshman was a little too casual swinging the ball from his left hand to his right hand coming out of the backcourt and Esho pounced.
The Minuteman junior poked the ball free and raced by the flat-footed Bembry for a dunk that brought the 4,621 already standing fans at the Mullins Center to a full roar as UMass pulled ahead. The Hawks didn’t score again as the 19th-ranked Minutemen pulled away for a 66-62 win Wednesday.
Chaz Williams, Esho’s roommate, said their one-on-one games help Esho be ready to defend guards.
“We play one on one a lot. I told him, ‘If you can check me, you can check anyone on the floor,’” Williams said. “I don’t want to tell you, but he picked me the other day in practice doing something similar. That’s Maxie being Maxie.”
Esho’s dunk was one of several big plays for the Minutemen down the stretch, but that one particularly embodied the final minutes for UMass, which appeared to be in trouble before stripping momentum and eventually the victory from the Hawks.
“The will to win at the end was nice,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “When you’re trying to do something special, you have to win some games where things don’t go perfectly. ... Nobody is going to give you a game. We have to go try to win the game, take the game. Maxie’s play epitomized that.”
Williams led UMass with 22 points and four assists, but his defense on Langston Galloway helped seal the win. Following Esho’s dunk, Williams got Galloway to take and miss a tough 3-point try late in the shot clock. The ball bounced around until UMass’ Trey Davis dove into the pile to force the jump ball. The possession arrow was in UMass’ favor and Derrick Gordon inbounded the ball to Davis, who was immediately fouled. He made both free throws with 33 seconds left.
The Hawks tried to find Galloway again, but Williams stayed so close he never even got the ball forcing a St. Joe’s timeout. Even with a chance to draw up a play, the Hawks couldn’t get Galloway free of Williams and instead settled for a 3 attempt by Papa Ndao with five seconds left. Davis cleared the board and was fouled with four seconds left.
This time he made just the first one, but it was enough to stretch UMass’ edge to two possessions.
“I love challenges. I just want to guard the best player on the other team,” Williams said. “Coach gave me the assignment late in the game. I didn’t want to let him down.”
The Minutemen (13-1, 1-0 Atlantic 10) host St. Bonaventure, Saturday at 12:30 p.m. Saint Joseph’s (9-5, 0-1) is at George Mason, Saturday at 8 p.m.
“It was a big boy game and we weren’t big enough at the end,” St. Joe’s coach Phil Martelli said.
UMass survived a 19-point, 13-rebound, six-assist effort from Halil Kanacevic. The Hawk forward was Williams’ teammate at Hofstra before both players transferred to the Atlantic 10 when coach Tom Pecora left for Fordham.
“He called me a couple days ago, but I hung up on him,” Williams said. “I had to call him back. He’s like a brother to me. I told him I’d talk to him after the game. He’s a great player. I wish he would have come here with me.”
UMass was down 31-28 at halftime despite being outrebound 18-12 and shooting poorly from the field (11 for 28) and 3-point range (1 for 9).
Raphiael Putney scored all 11 of his points in the second half, while Esho added 12.